Abuse by prison guards proves need for oversight

Recently, the Ombudsman of the State of Alaska released a report that upheld the allegations of an Alaskan prison inmate at the Spring Creek Correctional Facility in Seward. The prisoner said that he and 11 other inmates were subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment by prison guards. The inmate alleged that guards forced male inmates to strip naked in front of female staff. After they were stripped the guards walked them in a parade on dog leashes past laughing and ridiculing guards. He claimed as well that at least one inmate, naked and without blankets or covering, was confined for hours in a cell that was soiled with blood, feces and trash. He also alleged that the officers were directed by their supervisors to turn off security cameras while engaged in this behavior.

 

Article 5 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States is a state: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Subjecting helpless prisoners to physical, emotional or psychological pain violates not only international law but the moral law as well. The acts perpetrated against these helpless prisoners were an assault on their inherent human dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God. As a Catholic, I am reminded that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that degrading treatment and torture “which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”

The guards treated these inmates this way as a punishment after they caused a disturbance in the prison. They did this to supposedly teach the prisoners a lesson. It is particularly disturbing that these vigilante acts were carried out by ostensibly professional corrections officers.

One of the concerns the Department of Corrections has raised is that implementing some of the reforms called for in the Ombudsman’s report would be met with “significant opposition from staff and their union representatives.” Unions exist to protect worker’s rights and safety, they don’t exist to cover for reckless, potentially criminal, and ultimately immoral assaults against those in custody.

This shocking abuse occurred in 2013. It has taken four years for an investigation to take place.

The Ombudsman’s Office found the four allegations of misconduct by staff to be credible. In the report the following recommendations were made: The Department of Corrections should revise its body restraint policies; revise rules for body and cavity searches; all corrections officers be required to wear and use body cameras.

Unfortunately, the Department of Corrections is under no obligation to implement these recommendations, declining to require body cameras on the grounds that at $350 a piece, complying with this recommendation is cost prohibitive. I think it’s money well spent to keep inmates safe, and to keep guards honest. The humane treatment and safety of incarcerated prisoners is our collective responsibility.

Ultimately, we as citizens, voters and taxpayers are responsible for the welfare and dignified treatment of those who are in the custody of the state. I ask you as my fellow citizens to write to the Corrections Commissioner and ask that corrections officers be required to wear body cameras at all correctional institutions, fire the supervisors and guards responsible for these outrageous and indefensible acts and insist on the humane and respectful treatment of every person in custody by his officers. If there is not enough money to do that, then the Legislature needs to allocate it.


• Miguel Rohrbacher is a Juneau resident.


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